Monday, March 12, 2012

The Lightning Card of the Week - Mike Smith 2009-10 UD Victory

There is a 78% chance Smith is going to turn the puck over in this photo.

2009-10 Mike Smith Upper Deck Victory. Back to back Victory cards and back to back current Phoenix Coyotes.  Wow, two posts into this gimmick and I'm already in a rut. I like the Victory cards because they usually don't try to be anything more than a basic set. No need to be fancy with the design or photos, just make sure you have the logo, player name and team name on the front and throw a white border around it. Works for me.

How do you remember the Mike Smith era in Tampa? Colossal disappointment? Unfulfilled potential? Have you ever dated someone who was perfect for you, but for some reason it just didn’t work out? Despite the fact that you laughed at the same jokes, she tolerated Star Wars and you didn’t mind Titanic, something was still off.  Either she was coming off a long-term relationship or you were an axe-wielding psychopath, the relationship just didn’t work so you parted ways and wished the best for each other.  To me, that was the Mike Smith experience in Tampa.

Things were rocky from the beginning for Smith in Tampa.  He was the centerpiece in a deal that saw one of the most popular players in Lightning history shipped out because the new ownership group couldn’t afford him.  He was behind the 8-ball from the beginning with some fans because he was traded for Brad Richards and could never live up to their expectations simply because he wasn’t Richey.

On paper he was as close to a perfect prospect for a goaltender. He was big (6’4” 215), athletic, and successful – as the understudy to Marty Turco in Dallas Smith posted a 24-14 record with .909 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against average over two seasons with the Stars.  Most importantly to the ownership group he was young and he was cheap.

There were some good times, his 43 wins places him fifth all-time on the Lightning wins chart and he did post 6 shut-outs through his 3+ seasons with the Bolts. Heck, he even had a shining moment in the 2010-11 Stanley Cup playoff run where he replaced a struggling Dwayne Roloson in Game 4 and stopped all 21 shots he faced on the way to the Lightning’s come-from-behind 5-3 win.

He was a well-liked guy in the clubhouse, Nate Thompson called him “one of our favorite guys” and there was considerable glumness in the clubhouse when he was demoted to Norfolk during the 2010-11 season. There was also his undeniable on-screen chemistry with Ryan Malone.

Unfortunately, in the end there was too much inconsistency.  For some reason he could never grab the number one role no matter how many times it was on the table for him.  He would play well for stretches and then disappear, losing starts to Johan Holmqvist, Karri Ramo, Dan Ellis and finally Dwayne Roloson.

He had pockets full of talent, but perhaps a little too much enthusiasm.  He loved to play the puck, but was so bad at it I advocated chaining him to his goalposts at one point.  He was big and athletic, but technically a bit unsound.  My sister has a dog.  When he was a puppy Milo’s paws were disproportionally huge compared to the rest of his body and he wasn’t the most coordinated animal ever created.  He tended to crash around the house more then run or walk. That’s what Mike Smith was  – a giant puppy crashing around the crease.

Injuries played a large role in his struggles in Tampa, the biggest example being the concussion he hid from the coaching staff for six weeks. The concussion would eventually cost him the last 32 games of the 2008-09 season. During his tenure with the Lightning he would miss time with various knee and neck injuries as well.

When Tampa made it clear they had no intentions of re-signing him in the off-season most fans wished him good luck while others snickered when Phoenix signed him to a 2-year/$4 million deal.  Now that the season is winding down it’s obvious that the Coyotes are the ones laughing as Smith has 30 wins under his belt and is a goalie reborn under the tutelage of goaltender coach Sean Burke.

From the handful of games I’ve watched, he’s calmer, better positioned and under control when making saves.  There is a lot less flailing and desperate scrambling.  Being reunited with Dave Tippet’s defensive system (Tippet was his coach in Dallas as well) seems to agree with his style more so than whatever Barry Melrose and Rick Tocchet put on the ice. Even Coach Boucher’s system puts a lot of pressure on the goalie when it’s not executed correctly by the team in front of him.

He’s only 29-years-old so there is still a chance he can string together a good career in the NHL. Perhaps, the demotion to Norfolk last year served as a wake-up call. Now maybe with a little bit of maturity and discipline he can establish himself as a number one goaltender in the league. It’s a shame it won’t be in a Lightning uniform, but sometimes a change of scenery is best for a young player.

To go back to our earlier analogy I guess now Smith is the ex-girlfriend you stayed friends with and are glad that she’s doing well, but it still pisses you off that she met a doctor and is driving around in a Mercedes.  Especially since at this point the Lightning are still the axe-wielding psychopath still looking to meet the right girl.

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